History of Mansfield
The Town of Mansfield was established in 1775 as part of the rich history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mansfield offers an outstanding school system, and great environment.
The following article was written by Jennie F. Copeland for and published in the Mansfield 150th Anniversary Program for August 23 through 26, 1925. Jennie Copeland is the author of "Every Day but Sunday," The Romantic Age of New England Industry, a History of Mansfield.
By Jennie F. Copeland, Historian
The twenty-third of August, 1925, marks one hundred and fifty years since, by a General Act of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, Mansfield became incorporated as a town. Five years before, 1770, it had been, by an act of the General Court, incorporated as a separate district, and received its name in honor of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, England.
This Provincial Congress, a body of men, headed by John Hancock, had stepped into office to replace the General Court which had met for the last time under British authority on September 17, 1774. The Congress was considered by the British and Tories as act of treason, and all its enactments illegal. Consequently when Massachusetts had a constitution and duly organized legislature, it reaffirmed certain previous acts. Thus, on March 23, 1786, the following Act declared all places incorporated by the name of districts before the first day of January, 1777, to be towns, to every intent and purpose whatever.
We begin our history with the coming of the first white man, Captain Miles Standish, who with John Brown and others, came, June 19, 1640, to survey the land bought by a company of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony three years before, a track of land called the to Titiquet Purchase, which contained about sixty-four square miles. The northern point of this rhomboid of land is on the Fisher property, not far from Willow Street, and is known on old deeds as to Cobbler’s Corner from the tradition that one of the Standish party cobbled his shoes here.
On June 6, 1668, is recorded another purchase which concerns us. This was known as the Taunton North Purchase to distinguish it from previous purchases. It included an irregular tract around the northern limits of the Titiquet Purchase and added to Taunton all of the present towns of Mansfield, Norton and Easton.
The first settlers came in 1685; Thomas Brintnell to the northeast corner, near the Foxboro line, and John Caswell to the east part. Were that a longer treatise each settler might well have at least a paragraph devoted to him. As it is we will mention especially, only three, Nicholas White, the local statesman, Thomas Skinner, the first schoolmaster, and Ephraim Leonard, the capitalist.
Nicholas White came into prominence when he, with George Leonard, (Norton) were made the agents of the Taunton North Purchase to petition Taunton to be set off as a separate town. Taunton was loath to grant the request. From November 27, 1707, until June, 1711, these two, as representatives of their district, persisted, by petitions to Taunton and to the General Court, until they won the struggle. Thus, Norton, which included Mansfield, in 1711 became a town.
Norton’s first act was to establish a church. Nicholas White was one of the leaders in this as in all town affairs. He was, indeed, the first deacon of the church, the first town treasurer, for eleven years one of the selectmen, and a representative to the General Court. It is worthy of note that the first representative that Mansfield, as a separate precinct, sent to the General Court was the son of Nicholas White.
Within a score of years after the separation from Taunton, the north precinct of Norton demanded a separation. Nicholas White is again in the foreground, heading a petition to General Court. The petition was granted. On August 31, 1731, this section became Norton North Precinct. Nicholas White was the moderator at the first precinct meeting. At that time the North Precinct contained thirty or thirty-five families.
Preparation for a place of public worship was at once begun. A small frame building was put up on the present Common. September 14, 1731, the precinct voted to cover and close the meeting-house already put up.
Doubtless preaching services were held as soon as the church was covered, but it required five years to secure a settled minister. Four were called; each declined. On September 7, 1736, the precinct called Rev. Ebenezer White, who accepted and was ordained, February 23, 1737. Thought in feeble health, he remained with the church twenty- four years.
His house stood below the Four Corners where the house occupied by Mr. Elwin Pizer now stands. After Mr. White’s death, Micah Allen of Sharon bought the house and part of the farm. Mr. White’s widow, who lived forty years after his death, still held her right to occupy part of the house and to have her garden lot on the east side of the house during her life time. She lived in the days of woman’s rights, if not of women’s suffrage. More than one hundred and twenty-five years ago when the road was made by the house, instead of running straight and passing the front of the house is was curved and lengthened to pass on the west, or back of the house, because, they said, it would never do to go through Madam White’s garden Hence, today extra gallons of gasoline are consumed in going around the curve between Four Corners and Hall Street.
Mrs. White died in 1800. In 1827 the old house was taken down. In 1840 another house, which still stands, was moved on the same cellar. Mr. White’s daughter Mary married Lemuel Fisher. They had part of the minister’s farm and lived in a gambrel roof house a short distance northerly. Their granddaughter married Capt. Ira Richardson, by whose name we know the house on Willow Street (Fisher-Richardson House). The second minister was Rev. Roland Green, called January 12, 1761. Mr. Green continued an uneventful ministry for nearly forty-seven years. His home is standing on the original site, 161 West Street.
Mr. Green owned the first chaise in Mansfield. The story comes down to us that at that time there lived in West Mansfield a man who apparently resented the minister’s riding around in such style, so, not to be outdone, he hollowed out a log, set it up on a pair of wheels, and on Sunday morning hitched his horse to the shafts, drove up to the center and around the meeting-house during the service.
During the ministry of Mr. Green a new meeting-house, 60 feet long and 45 feet wide, was built near the old one. Begun in 1764, it was not finished for four years. On October 6, 1766, it was voted to build forty-two pews and to auction off the pew spots. When the owner of the pew ground had built his pew he was allowed forty shilling out of the treasury. The pew when built became family property and was willed from father to son. Big square pews were with seats on three sides and a door into the aisle on the fourth side. Some of the wooden seats were on hinges and were turned up when the congregation rose to sing. The boys took great delight in letting them slam down. Around the top of each pew was a decoration of rungs eight or ten inches high. At least one small girl enjoyed turning the loose rungs to make them squeak. There was a gallery on each side, and one at the back, where the choir sat. A bass viol, a double bass viol, and violin furnished the music. Opposite the choir was the pulpit with its high desk and sounding-board.
In 1839 a floor was laid, making the former gallery the church auditorium, thus leaving the ground floor, then referred to as the basement, for other purposes. The greater part of this ground floor was a hall; the rest was used at various times for a private school, a harness shop, and a tin shop. All town meetings, until the Town Hall was erected in 1883, were held in the hall. Many are the interesting tales of meetings, told by men, who as boys watched proceedings from the high window seats.
The Anti-Slavery Riot of 1836
The most exciting event that ever took place there, or perhaps anywhere in Mansfield, was the Anti-Slavery Riot of 1836.
It happened on Monday, October 10, 1836, when Mr. Charles C. Burleigh, employed by the American Anti-Slavery Society, was invited, with the consent of the parish committee, to lecture in the meeting-house. The day before, the Pro-Slavery party secretly held a meeting in the Mulberry Tavern. They consulted a lawyer, who told them that they would not be exposed to the penalty of the law if they raised a mob of less than thirty unarmed men, or less than twelve armed men. At the appointed time Mr. Burleigh arrived, and the bell began to toll. Who tolled it, nobody knew for the belfry was locked. As Mr. Burleigh rose to speak a heavy drumming began. The louder he spoke, the louder the response from the gallery. All the time the bell was tolling. Finally the speaker was forced to sit down. Constable Chandler Cobb then went to the gallery and demanded order. On their refusal to listen to him he called for assistance. A fight followed on the gallery stairs. When Mr. Cobb and his helpers withdrew, their clothes were torn and their faces bloody. The constable then read the Riot Act from the Revised Statues, but they paid no attention. Somebody then went for Squire Solomon Pratt, chairman of the selectmen. While he was gone, Mr. Foster Bryant, lately come from New York to engage in mining business, got up and delivered a tirade against Anti-Slavery. When Mr. Pratt came he carefully looked away from the gallery where the drum was in full view and said he saw no mob. The audience, realizing that Mr. Burleigh would have no opportunity to speak, began to leave. Mr. Burleigh followed and spoke a few words from the steps. Quickly the mob followed and played their discordant notes. Again Mr. Burleigh outgeneraled them by stepping inside and speaking. Then the mob divided; one part had the big drum, the other the small drum and bugle; thus they kept both inside and outside fortified. Mr. Burleigh gave up trying to speak, but before he left, he circulated the constitution of the Anti-Slavery Society, obtaining fifty names. As Mr. Burleigh left the building, Deacon Otis Allen asked him to ride. The mob, shouting, beating drums and blowing bugles, followed the two as they crossed the Common to the Deacon’s carriage. Anti-Slavery sentiment in Mansfield developed rapidly after that; in a few months there were three hundred members of the society.
About 1873, this historic old building was moved to Union Street, below the cemetery, and finally torn down in 1888.
The second minister in this building and third in the precinct was Rev. Richard Briggs. Mr. Briggs was pastor from 1809 until 1833.
Mr. Briggs was succeeded by Rev. Nathan Holman and Rev. Dr. Saunders. These two, to suit the varied taste of the congregation, alternated in preaching.
This difference of theological taste as well as a difference of opinion on the slavery questions led, in 1838, to the forming of a new society, called the Orthodox Congregational Society, which withdrew and began holding services of worship in the school house, with Rev. Nathan Holman as preacher. Later they worshipped in the hall of the Mulberry Tavern, which stood between where the Methodist Church and Robinson’s store now stand. They completed, in January 1839, their new meeting-house, which, several times enlarged and altered, is still in use on West Street.
The original society, which had become Unitarian, continued until the building was torn down in 1888. At that time the Universalist, an offspring of the old society, was organized. The Society of Friends organized, and built a meeting- house in 1809. In 1811, the Methodists built a meeting-house in the east part; the Christian Baptist organized and built in the west part. The Baptist Church at the center was organized and the building erected in 1837, the Society of the New Jerusalem the next year, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was built in 1871. The Methodist built in 1876, the Episcopal Church, first as a mission, organized 1893 and built their chapel in 1910.
Next in importance, in New England, to the founding of the church was the founding of the school. Our first school record is that in 1719 Thomas Skinner was chosen as the first schoolmaster to continue one quarter; and his salary not to Exceed two pounds for said quarter. The schools for many years were held in private homes. During the winter of 1725 it was held in the house of Nicholas White. The house stands (Hall St.) where is was built in 1702, or 1703.
On January 16, 1758, the town voted to divide the school into nine quarters or districts, the north precinct, or what is now Mansfield, to have one-third of the quarters.
When Mansfield, in 1770, became incorporated as a district, it was provided that Norton should allow Mansfield a part of the money already assessed for the support of the schools.
On September 10, 1770, at a meeting of the free holders, it was voted to raise 50 pounds to support the schools and to defray the district charges. On December 17 of the same year they voted to have four schools kept the three winter months ensuring-two on the east side and two on the west side-and choose a committee to locate them.
At best, each district got no more than six or eight weeks school during the year. So, according to an old record of August 1792, fifteen men at the south end of the precinct petitioned that Mrs. Polly Chiver schoolâ€ their children for six weeks after she finished the town or public school. The parents were to bear the expense. Three weeks of the school was to be held at the house of Ensign Lemuel White, or the house of Mrs. John White, and the other three weeks at the house of Lieut. William Copeland. Twenty-seven children attended that school. We do not know Mrs. Chiver’s salary, but the next year a Mr. George taught the same school and was paid $2.12 for a quarter of six weeks. $1.60 was paid for the wood to keep master and pupils warm. The six weeks board cost the parents $5.
The first school house was a red brick one, built about 1793 on a spot very near where W L. Robinson’s house stands. By 1850 it was in a dilapidated condition. In the wall toward the Congregational Church there was for several years a hole six or eight inches across, through which the winds howled all winter.
The demand for a new building met with will response until one Sunday morning in the 50’s the people on the way to church found in place of the old building a heap of bricks with a roof on top, and on top of the roof the old cast iron stove that formerly heated the building. No penalty was imposed. The No. 4, now known as the Main Street School, to replace the old one, was built a few years later. The outside schools were built in the first decade of the last century.
At an early date there were private schools. In the early for-ties such a school was conducted in the old church. Mr. Josiah L. Armes was the teacher. That was succeeded by the Mansfield Academy, which was built about 1844 or 1845 by seven men who had children they wished to educate. It was located on the Congregational Church land where the horse sheds now stands. Later when sheds were needed, the building was moved to land off what is now Fulton Street. When the school was given up, about 1848-9, the building was sold, the bell tower taken off, and the house moved to Fulton Street and made into the two family house still standing, No. 15.
Mr. James Bailey was the principal of the Academy. At one time there were fifty pupils. Most of the pupils came from Mansfield, but they also came from other towns, and even other states. The tuition in the Common English Branches was $3.50 a term of eleven weeks. In 1846 they published one number of a school paper called The Tyronian, an exceedingly interesting four page sheet.
In 1857, Rev. Daniel W Stevens, after resigning the pastorate of the Unitarian Church, opened a private school on the second floor of the large building on the corner of Webb Place and South Main Street, known to many as the Rogerson Block. Mr. John H. Berry bought out the school, and began teaching, September 11, 1865. Later he moved to the basement of the old church. He continued until 1871, when he went into the brokerage business in Boston.
The first High School was opened in the No. 4 school house on January 15, 1872 under the management of Rev. A. F. Frost, as principal. There were sixty pupils in attendance the first term. The following year Mr. Berry was asked to return to Mansfield as principal, in which capacity he remained for four years. From 1879 to 1908 Mr. Berry was principal of the Grammar School. In 1878, under the principalship of Frank M. Copeland, successor to Mr. Berry, the first high school graduation was held.
We have already touched on two importance factors in the founding of a new town, the church and the school. One other has been of importance - industries. This was early recognized, for a grant of twelve acres was promised to John Hall and Josiah Pratt provided they set up a grist mill and have it going so as to make meal on or before the first day of May in the year of 1717, and keep there a mill in good repair fit to make meal from time to time forever. The time was extended, and by April, 1719, the mill was going. It was located on Rumford River a few rods from Cobbler’s Corner. The old mill was bought and sold a number of times, but until 1825 it continued to grind at least a handful of corn a year as a tribute for its twelve acres.
Mansfield’s colonial capitalist was Col. Ephraim Leonard, who, in 1734, erected his iron works on the Canoe River. The works were assessed for five hundred pounds. The bog iron was obtained in the low lands in the east and south ends of the town. According to early records, he was a man of great energy and decision of character, a man much employed in town affairs. In 1747 he was appointed Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He was, without doubt, the wealthiest man in the North Precinct and the only slave owner.
Other enterprises established before, or about 1800, were: in the Whiteville district, a furnace, which, in 1781, was casting shot and cannon for the Continental Army; in the east, a shop for the manufacture of tacks and nails by Simeon Snow, in 1803; in the west part the making of baskets, 1789, by Abner Bailey, who as a sailor had learned to weave the covering for glass demijohns, and after coming to Mansfield branched into basket making. Others took it up, until fifty years ago a hundred men were working at the trade.
As a financier and a promoter of good business Solomon Pratt stands out preeminently in the early part of the last century.
About 1811, Mr. Pratt was one of a company to purchase the water privilege of the grist mill near Cobbler’s Corner. A mill was built and cotton manufactured but by some mismanagement the company failed. Then Mr. Pratt took over the concern and carried it on alone successfully. In 1830 the factory burned and everything was lost without insurance. Nothing daunted, Mr. Pratt rebuilt, and continued the manufacture of cotton there as long as he lived.
April 20, 1811, Mr. Pratt, though not the largest investor, was one of the owners of another mill, known as the “Mansfield Cotton Manufacturing Company” with a capital of $16,000. The corporation continued until 1841, about which time Mr. Pratt came into possession of all the shares and carried the business alone. This mill was located where Cobb’s shop now stands.
August 27, 1813, Mr. Pratt, with others, started a cotton mill in East Mansfield where Flint’s saw-mill now stands.
In 1815, Mr. Pratt and Elkanah Bates built the Upper Factory for cotton. After Mr. Bates’ death, Mr. Pratt ran that alone. It was located where the White Star Laundry does business on Rumford Avenue.
Mansfield is a town of varied industries. It would require pages to devote even a few lines to each firm that has been successfully established in the last twenty-five or thirty years.
Since they today are making history which can be read by a walk through the town, it need not be recorded here.
There were other cotton mills with which Mr. Pratt had no connection, but these were not so successful. They were: The Mansfield North Manufacturing Company, 1814, on the site of the old furnace, known as the old North Factory; the Skinner Factory, 1815, in West Mansfield, where Brigg’s grist mill later stood; and the Williams’ factory, 1820, in Happy Hollow, West Mansfield.
Mr. Pratt was not only a mill operator, he was a merchant and holder of town offices. He had a general store, the first in Mansfield, opposite the Common, where Chabot’s Market is now located. The High School stands on the site of his residence. He is described as a man of fine physique and imposing presence. A contemporary said of him, if Squire Pratt should walk down Broadway in New York, people would turn to look at him.
Of great importance in the industrial history of the town was the straw business. Again the name of Solomon Pratt. He furnished the straw, and after women had woven it into braid, had the bonnets shaped. But John Rogers was the real founder of the hat business. In 1835 he started the business in his home. About 1846 or a848, he built the shop on Park Street, then called Roger’s Lane. This later was enlarged. What this business has meant to the comfort and prosperity of many Mansfield families would be a long story.
In the early days, as now, shoes wore out, though perhaps not so rapidly then. At first itinerant cobblers went about the country, spending a few days each year in the homes, there using skins that had been tanned and cured after the butchering. About 1800, seven pairs of shoes cost $350, and five pairs were mended for fifty cents. Around 1845 to 1850, several shoe-makers along the roads to East Mansfield and other parts of the town, made shoes in their homes. A man named Babcock, in 1852 or 1854, opened the first shoe shop, in what was known for many years as the Babbitt house on High Street, now used by the New England Drawn Steel Company for office purposes. Hog’s bristles were used for needles, and a waxed end, probably flax, was twisted around the bristles. In this way the thread was pulled through the holes made by an awl.
Of value to the progress of the town has been the foundry business. In 1852 John Terry, an English foundry-man, erected a wooden building and started business. He soon sold out to Gardner Chilson, who built the stone structures near the railroad station, in 1852-3. [These structures were demolished in 1998 from a fire.] Mr. Chilson carried on a very successful business until his death in 1877, when his executor, Eustace C. Fitz, carried it on until James E White bought out his interest. The business discontinued in 1918.
William Bird, another English foundry-man, and a work-man for Mr. Chilson, in 1874 built a foundry of his own. The next year he died, and the business passed into the hands of his nephews, William H. and Joseph E Rider. The business remained in the hands of the Rider family until 1916 when it was bought by the Mansfield Foundry Company.
Another foundry was opened by George Wilber, who had bought the old Simeon Clark forge. In 1885, Mr. Wilbur sold to Patrick Sheilds. The foundry is now run by Mr. Shields’ sons.
As early as 1836 there was a shop on what is now Card’s Pond. First, Loren Willis’ axle shop, which was succeeded, about 1846, by Schenck’s machine shop, a $20,000 concern. Next Capron and Williams manufactured horn jewelry there. In 1874, Simon W Card, who had come to town to work in John Birkenhead’s spindle shop, another business started in the 60’s, began the manufacture of taps and dies in a small building where the large Card factory now stands. Not long after, a fire consumed everything but the door key. He rebuilt, and by hard work on his part, and with the able assistance of Mrs. Card, who for three years tempered his steel for him, he established the business, which is now one of the largest in town. Though it bears the Card name, it is a branch of the Union Twist Drill of Athol.
Lack of space curtails the story of the McMoran and Fulton knife business started by Andrew McMoran on what is now the Austin goose farm, in 1835, and carried on later by Mr. McMoran and his son-in-law, Robert Fulton, on Rumford Avenue. Later the business passed into the hands of Matthew George, who continued it until his retirement about 1900.
For a number of years soap was made by four different men, Capt. Schuyler Shepard, James W Cobb, R. H. Belcher and R. J. Paine.
About 1850, Mr. George E Bailey began baking bread in a small way in his father’s residence. The business grew, a large shop was built where general baking was done. Later, with his sons, he made the Bailey oven, which was widely known.
Jewelry has been manufactured in Mansfield since 1857, when the building, known so long as the Spaulding shop, was built by an association of Mansfield men. The investment did not prove a success and was sold to Merritt and Draper of Attleboro. Later it passed into the hands of Doliver S Spaulding, who carried on the business successfully many years. In 1863, Frank G. Hodges of Attleboro began making bracelets in Henry Kingman’s barn. A few years later, Kingman and Hodges, as a firm, bought the Middle Factory, now the site of F. M. and J. L. Cobb’s shop. Since that time, one firm or another has manufactured jewelry there.
Though Mansfield men devoted themselves to founding well the church, the school, and business, they never neglected the defense of their country. In 1745, when Massachusetts sent an expedition to Louisburg, a company raised in Norton and vicinity, of which company, John Caswell (East Mansfield) was lieutenant. During the French and Indian War, 1745-1763, thirty-eight soldiers, some of them officers, went from here.
In the night, after the battle of Lexington, Mansfield’s minute men were called and one hundred started at once for Boston. These men got no further than Roxbury, and soon returned, but before the War for Independence was over, 251 men were in the service.
The War of 1812-14 called out 47 men. The record in the Civil War was glorious, 261 responded. Three served in the Spanish War. In the World War, 312 went forth.
Figures are quickly told. The numbers have been large in proportion to the population, but Mansfield has sent forward more than numbers, she has sent to war heroes, some of whom never return. Should war come again, Mansfield will be ready. Let us hope, however, that the record of the next hundred and fifty years will be only of peace and prosperity.